It’s pretty normal for movies to change titles in one way or another during the creation process. High profile movies will have different titles to help avoid leaks. Sequels might have their subtitles adjusted as the focus of the story changes or as the marketing demands it.
This was the case with Star Wars: The Force Awakens. What’s unusual, though, is that the old title, whether by coincidence or intent, has some significance to longtime fans of the series.
The Lucasfilm Story Group’s creative executive said on Twitter that The Force Awakens was referred to as Shadow of the Empire for quite a bit of its development time.
— Pablo Hidalgo (@pablohidalgo) December 25, 2015
That’s very similar, fans will remember, to a cross-platform multimedia blitz the Star Wars universe experienced in the late 1990s for a title called Shadows of the Empire. The story took place between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, cropping up as a novel, a comic book, an orchestral score, and a Nintendo 64 video game. Everything but an actual movie.
If the title had been left as-is, fans would’ve likely had a ton of stuff to speculate about. With so many books, comics, and other stories in the long-running Star Wars expanded universe, those making the new trilogy have a minefield of already-used titles and story ideas to pull from and avoid.
The titles for Star Wars: Episode VIII and IX haven’t yet been announced, but if they wanted to pull from old novels for development titles, Heir to the Empire and Dark Force Rising are good places to start.